North Korea said it will scrap the 1953 armistice, cut a cross-border hotline to South Korea and display its nuclear status, bringing tensions on the peninsula to the highest level in three years.
The actions yesterday, along with rhetoric that followed a United Nations Security Council vote to impose more sanctions on North Korea, came as more than 10,000 U.S. troops joined South Korea’s military in annual maneuvers. North Korea will “reinforce as a nuclear weapons state” in response to the vote, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency today.
“North Korea has never given the kind of threat we saw this week at such frequency and language,” Cheong Seong Chang, a senior research fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute said in a telephone interview. “North Korea has never made a threat of a nuclear attack, nullified the armistice, cut off communications channels and shut the truce village at the same time.”
North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, inspected front-line troops and said his military is ready for “all-out war,” KCNA reported yesterday. The government closed a liaison channel with the U.S. and South Korea at the world’s most heavily fortified border after the UN imposed sanctions March 7 in response to a North Korean nuclear test last month and continued efforts to develop missiles.
South Korea warned that any nuclear strike would mean the end of North Korea’s regime.
“The Kim Jong Un regime will be abolished if North Korea exercises what it claims is the ’right’ to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike,” Kim Min Seok, a spokesman at South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said in a phone interview March 7. “It’s a threat to humankind.”
Tensions last rose so high in 2010, following the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors, and North Korea’s shelling eight months later of a South Korean border island, in which four people died.
Tightened sanctions may lead to provocations by North Korea, Bank of Korea senior deputy governor Park Won Shik said at an emergency meeting in Seoul yesterday.
South Korea is prepared to deal with any market turmoil caused by the threats, Vice Finance Minister Shin Je Yoon said at an emergency meeting of finance and other officials today in Seoul.
“We will swiftly deploy contingency plans for different scenarios in case of any provocative acts,” Shin said. “We will stay on alert and hold daily meetings while closely monitoring the situation.”
The Korean won fell 0.3 percent to 1,090.46 per dollar yesterday, while the benchmark Kospi index ended up 0.1 percent. Defense shares closed mixed after an early rally. Naval ship equipment maker Speco Co. rose by 8.6 percent, and armored vehicle manufacturer Firstec Co. fell 4 percent.
A North Korean general, Kang Pyo Yong, said March 7 that the country has placed long-range missiles armed with nuclear warheads on standby, according to Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea.
The nuclear-missile threat is “complete categorical bluster,” said Jennifer Lind, a Korean affairs specialist who is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
“We know they do not have functional intercontinental ballistic missiles, and we know they do not have any nuclear device that could be fitted to a missile,” she said.
North Korea “abrogates all agreements on nonaggressions reached between the North and the South,” the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, a North Korean organization, said in an English-language statement, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
“An extremely dangerous situation is prevailing on the Korean Peninsula where a nuclear war may break out right now,” the committee said in a statement carried by the KCNA.
John McCreary, a former Korean affairs analyst at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, said that “the intensive indoctrination of the North Korean public is more worrisome than specific announcements or actions.”
Closing direct communications channels is a classic indicator of general war, he said. “If North Korea recalls diplomats, closes the borders and airport and discloses more actions indicating it is in a semi-war state of readiness, the allies must prepare for a North Korean military incident, if not an attack by fire,” McCreary said.
While North Korea wants to use threats to gain political leverage internationally and to show regime strength domestically, it “really doesn’t want war,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy group.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is discussing the situation with the South Korean government.
“There is obviously great concern within the population in South Korea about the bellicosity of the remarks coming from Pyongyang,” she said yesterday at a briefing in Washington.
North Korea deploys military force including missiles, artillery and chemical weapons within range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital, a city of 10 million located 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of the demilitarized zone.
South Korean President Park Geun Hye, who took office as the country’s first female leader last month, said the government will “sternly respond” to any provocations.
Representative Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the U.S. should increase economic pressure on North Korea to force its leaders to abandon their nuclear weapons program. The California Republican, who is drafting sanctions legislation, called for targeting financial institutions used by the regime for illicit transactions
“What’s interesting is how much of their hard currency comes from dealing in contraband,” Royce said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. Royce said he sees a chance that China, North Korea’s largest trading partner and an ally of more than six decades, might support such efforts.
China joined the 15-0 UN Security Council vote to adopt a sanctions resolution in the aftermath of the Feb. 12 underground nuclear blast. Its support for the sanctions may reflect mounting frustration after North Korea conducted that test in defiance of both the UN and the Chinese government.
The new sanctions target “illicit activity” by North Korean diplomats, bulk transfers of cash, and banks and companies funneling funds or materials to support the country’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi today reiterated the country’s longstanding call for all sides in the Korean conflict to “exercise restraint” and didn’t single out North Korea for criticism.
“North Korea conducted a third nuclear test and tensions on the Korean peninsula are once again heightened,” Yang told reporters in Beijing during China’s annual legislative session. “This is not something we want to see.”
The resolution includes bans on equipment used to make chemical and nuclear weapons, front companies for the country’s weapons programs and the importation of yachts, racing cars and jewelry for the regime’s elite. It also obliges UN member-states to stop any North Korean ships or planes suspected of carrying supplies for weapons programs.
Diplomatic steps to impose new sanctions on North Korea began after the country tested a three-stage ballistic missile last year and intensified after the nuclear test that showed the country is assembling the building blocks for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that could reach as far as Hawaii.